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Help restore and revive Oakland Cemetery

A Do Good campaign that benefits the living and the dead

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In his mammoth 1954 book, Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of its People and Events, historian Franklin Miller Garrett wrote that DeKalb County resident Alfred Wooding sold six-acres of what was then a rural plot of land to the city on June 6, 1850. The price was a mere $75 per acre, and the land was to become a public burial ground for the burgeoning metropolis to the northwest, which by then had reached a population of 2,500. At first, it was simply called City Cemetery, but by 1872 it had been renamed Oakland Cemetery, supposedly because there were so many oak and magnolia trees flourishing on its grounds.

Conceived during what has come to be known as the rural garden movement — a Victorian-era alternative to traditional graveyards, which at the time had become overcrowded and were often seen as aesthetically macabre — Oakland was designed as a public park as much as it was a cemetery. It was to provide a majestic setting for both the living and the dead, where citizens would come to pay respects to their deceased loved ones, have picnics with their living families, spend some leisure time with friends, and host weddings, graduation parties, and other such celebrations amid the mausoleums, gravestones, and ornate statuary.

More than 160 years after its founding, Oakland Cemetery's walls encompass a sprawling 48 acres that provide sanctuary from the bustling city streets of the nearby Grant Park, Cabbagetown, and Old Fourth Ward neighborhoods that surround it. The cemetery's cobblestone paths lead to such sobering sites as the Confederate burial ground, home to nearly 6,900 soldiers, of which nearly 3,000 are unknown. There's also Potter's Field, a 5.7-acre plot that reportedly holds as many as 17,000 unmarked graves of slaves, paupers, and various other souls who didn't have the means for a proper burial. Then there are the celebrities, including former mayor Maynard Jackson, golf pro Bobby Jones, and Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell. "It's an Atlanta cemetery," says Oakland's Landscape Manager Sara Henderson. "There's a lot of history here."

Throughout the years, Oakland has remained true to its original vision as an active cemetery, but is equally well-loved as a greenspace where locals come to walk dogs, or just take in the gothic fairy-tale environment. But when a tornado ripped through the area in March 2008, Oakland's original six acres lay directly in its path. Many of its storied trees and shrubbery were damaged beyond repair, gravestones and statuary were shattered into pieces, and the soil has languished in various states of decline.

Landscaping and restoration efforts are ongoing, but to this day, much of the tornado's damage can still be seen. As part of this year's annual Neighborhood Issue, CL has launched a series of grassroots partnerships with various neighborhoods and nonprofits throughout the city. For Grant Park, CL and Oakland have set a goal to raise $2,500 to revitalize a public gathering area that's part of the cemetery's original plot. Do Good sponsor the Home Depot Foundation will match up to $2,500.

Separated by Oakland's main thoroughfare, Old Hunter Street, the original six-acre plot encompasses two public gathering areas called the North and South Public Grounds that sit just inside the cemetery gates. "The city makes a special effort to keep it looking nice," Henderson says, while adding that the area adjacent to North Public was the first portion of the cemetery to be restored. Renovations to North Public proper began in 2011. Restoration of South Public is underway as well, but much of the area is still in dire need of landscaping, which is where this Do Good project, dubbed "South Public Grounds Replanting," comes into play. Money raised for the project will fund an extensive effort to open up the area: clearing out brush, uprooting plants, and repairing a wall, followed by planting new shrubbery that will enclose the area and restore the soil.

Henderson, who served as a member of Oakland's Board of Trustees for six years before joining the staff, has taken the lead on the project. She's focusing on multi-season beauty in order to make the area a desirable site for visitors year-round. Funds will cover the cost of soil amendments, fertilizer, mulch, Centipede sod, and tool rentals. Groundbreaking is set for Sat., April 13 — Oakland's montly volunteer day. "We gather each month from February through November for a three-hour workday on the mornings of second Saturdays," Henderson says. "The tasks vary with the season but are always gardening of some sort. The volunteers divide up into groups and each group has a leader with extensive gardening experience."

The South Public Grounds Replanting volunteer project is open to the public and will begin with adding new trees, shrubs, and perennials. The goal is to get most of plants in the ground and mulched as soon as possible, so they'll have plenty of time to settle in and take root before the summer heat moves in.

On Sat., May 11, any remaining plants from the April workday will be added, and soil in the central areas will be prepped for sod, which will be laid down the following month on Sat., June 8. Then, once again, South Public will be suitable for recreation and gatherings, as its original Victorian-era designers intended.

Updates: To read more about the progress and completion of this project, see "Oakland Cemetery volunteer day slated for April 13," "Nailed it! All Three Do Good projects surpass fundraising goals," and "Do Good Campaign Update: Oakland Cemetery Revival."

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